BEIJING - A "guard rail" framework needs to be set up around red-line issues to better manage the US-China relationship, said former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who added that this is especially pertinent within Southeast Asia.
A focus on domestic politics by the previous Trump administration had resulted in several missteps in Southeast Asia but there is now a chance to reset this with a new government in Washington, said Mr Rudd, who heads the Washington-based Asia Society.
He was speaking at the annual Goh Keng Swee Lecture on Modern China organised by the East Asian Institute.
As competition between the world's two largest economies come to a head within the next 10 years on multiple fronts including in tech, defence and geopolitical influence, the world is entering the decade of living dangerously, Mr Rudd said.
To prevent this from descending into a full-on crisis, both sides need to mutually identify "basic red lines".
"(These lines need) to be mutually identified in high level diplomacy between the two sides, with high level policemen almost at work, working across the relationship, to make sure that those red lines aren't crossed," he said.
"Because if they do, then the retaliatory action would potentially send us into crisis, conflict and war."
The Trump administration framed its relationship with South-east Asia through the lens of its strategic contest with China, pushing for countries to openly choose between the superpowers when they were simply unwilling or unable to because of Beijing's economic footprint in the neighbourhood.
"Washington also failed to treat Asean as important in its own right, often simply failing to show up. It neglected multilateral summits, it failed to appoint relevant ambassadors, including in Singapore," he said.
"Indeed, in these most basic elements of foreign policy, this was one of the most reckless periods of US regional diplomacy in South-east Asia in my judgement, since the fall of Saigon," said the former Australian leader
But moving forward, the region appears to be setting the stage for re-engagement with the Biden administration, he said.
While the Trump years were bad for US foreign policy in the region, China has not gained much ground either, he noted.
The latest State of South-east Asia survey by the ISEAS - Yusuf Ishak Institute showed only 1.5 per cent of respondents in the region regard Beijing as a benign and benevolent superpower and 5.5 per cent trust China to uphold international law and the rules based order.
In the short term, the US should do as much as possible to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic while looking to implement a regional economic integration strategy in the medium term, Mr Rudd said.
Otherwise, the US will simply lose in South-east Asia, as China progressively wins, simply because of the growing size of Beijing's regional economic footprint, and the gravitational pull of the size and dimensions of the Chinese domestic economy," he added.